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Published April 17 2012

Beheaded victim in Cooperstown slaying had BAC of 0.54

COOPERSTOWN, N.D. – When Kurt Johnson fell backward off his barstool, the bartender at the Oasis Bar decided it was time for the North Dakota State University researcher to go.

She suggested calling police to take him home. But the man who had slid over beside Johnson on Dec. 31, 2010 – known as “machine gun head” because of the tattoo of one above his right ear – had other ideas.

“We don’t need any (expletive) cops. We’ll take care of this,” Daniel Wacht said, according to Griggs County State’s Attorney Marina Spahr’s preview Tuesday of a murder trial in which Wacht stands accused of shooting and then beheading Johnson.

Spahr said Johnson had a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.54 percent, more than six times the legal driving limit of 0.08, and he needed help to get out of the Oasis and into Wacht’s van outside the bar. When the man helping Johnson couldn’t hoist him over a tall berm of snow between the street and sidewalk, Spahr said Wacht grabbed Johnson by the neck and waist and threw him into the open side door of the van.

“And that’s when the party ended,” she said. “There would be no new beginnings for Kurt Johnson.”

One minute after midnight, Johnson’s cellphone – which wasn’t recovered – powered down, Spahr said.

During opening arguments in the murder trial of Wacht, 31, of Cooperstown, Spahr told jurors that the 54-year-old Johnson was celebrating New Year’s Eve when Wacht snuffed out his life “as suddenly and quickly as the cork popping off a champagne bottle.”

Spahr also alluded to a possible motive for the killing, telling jurors that 13 days before Johnson was last seen alive, Wacht told a man he met at a party that he was in an Aryan Nation-type gang and that he wanted to start a local white supremacy gang and needed to “make a statement” by blowing up a place or killing someone.

Spahr said phone records show Wacht opened an account under the name of Rudolf Hess, a high-ranking Nazi Party official under Adolf Hitler.

Wacht’s defense attorney, Steven Mottinger, told jurors that the evidence – which includes Johnson’s severed head found in a crawl space in Wacht’s rented home but not his still-missing body – isn’t as clear cut as prosecutors would have them believe.

“Their evidence will show that there are other possibilities, that someone else could have been involved,” Mottinger told the jury of eight men and six women, which includes two alternates.

Wacht has admitted giving Johnson a ride that night but denies killing him.

Spahr said Johnson died of a close-range bullet to the forehead and was dead before he was decapitated. A 9-mm hollow-point bullet was found lodged in his brain, and a ballistics expert will testify it could have been fired from the 9-mm Glock pistol recovered from Wacht’s back pocket when he was arrested Jan. 5, 2011, Spahr said.

A single 9-mm casing found in Wacht’s bedroom had blood spots on it, and forensic testing at a Texas lab indicated it could have only come from Johnson, his father or his grandfather, she said.

Phone records also will show Wacht traveled to Crosby, Minn., on Jan. 4 and came straight back to Cooperstown, Spahr said. The route to Crosby was among the areas authorities combed in their unsuccessful search for Johnson’s body.

Spahr told jurors they won’t hear how Johnson’s head was severed, but they will hear about key pieces of DNA evidence alleged to link Wacht to the killing – including a loveseat cushion found in Wacht’s garbage that was soaked in Johnson’s blood, as well as Wacht’s boots and gloves that had Johnson’s blood on the outside and Wacht’s DNA on the inside.

Spahr said not recovering the researcher’s body is frustrating for everyone involved in the investigation and Johnson’s family, but “it’s not a required element of this crime.”

Mottinger told jurors it’s not their job to provide closure to the community or Johnson’s family, and he cautioned them against jumping to a hasty conclusion. “If you’ve already decided that he’s guilty, then you have already failed,” he said.

The prosecution called four witnesses, all law enforcement officials, to enter into evidence photos taking during the investigation. Testimony resumes at 9 a.m. today. The trial is scheduled for two weeks.

Wacht faces up to life in prison without parole if convicted of the killing.

Security was extremely tight at the courthouse, with extra guards from neighboring counties and the North Dakota Highway Patrol stationed inside and outside the courtroom.

A sheriff’s deputy was ink-stamping the hands of visitors after they passed through the metal detector set up at the only working entrance to the 129-year-old Griggs County Courthouse, which county officials said hasn’t hosted a murder trial since 1929.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528